The American education system is highly decentralized, a reality that presents both challenges and opportunities for a nationa call to action for science education. Decentralization means that there is flexibility to meet the needs of local communities and regions. However, it also means that there is no central driver for maintaining quality and ensuring equity. As a result, there are often wide disparities in access to high-quality learning experiences, well-prepared science teachers, and well-resourced institutions of higher education.
Recognizing this reality, the committee calls for a national approach that energizes actors at federal and state levels but that honors local communities, acknowledges the genius they bring to solving problems, and takes into account the assets they leverage to implement their plans. Examples of that genius in action are abundant in the form of alliances to improve education in municipalities and regions across the country. These kinds of alliances—focused on providing better and more equitable education experiences for students from cradle to career—are already active in communities across the country, including Buffalo, Chattanooga, Dallas, and Tacoma, as well as in larger regions such as the Rio Grande Valley .
While there is demonstrated capacity for alliances to form in communities to address tough challenges, still national and state leaders must use policy, public leadership, and funding streams to create incentives for the widespread implementation of high-quality more equitable science learning experiences. Federal and state action will inspire and support community efforts and initiatives to elevate and improve science that take into account the unique contexts and assets of different municipalities and regions of the country, including the formation of alliances that coordinate the activities of multiple partners to implement better, more equitable science education. Decades of improvement efforts and evaluation make clear that having a vision, using
this vision to align policies and practices, and targeting attention to places where there is consistent lack of access to high-quality opportunities are essential strategies for improving education [14, 67]. Developing a vision for better, more equitable science education across K-16 is an essential first step for local and state leaders who will need to work together to improve systems and practices, curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
Priorities for advancing better, more equitable science education
Our call to action highlights five priorities for communities to address as they work to improve science education and broaden opportunity in the discipline. Under each priority below we identify high-level issues and steps to take. It is beyond the scope of this report to provide detailed, step-by-step guidance. However, previous reports from the National Academies offer extensive evidence-based guidance on how to move forward (see the section on For Further Reading).
First, communities will need to provide the time, materials, and resources necessary to support high-quality science learning experiences for all students across the K-16 continuum.
In elementary school—starting in kindergarten—ensuring students spend sufficient time learning science each week is essential. Even the youngest children are capable of engaging in science investigations. Making science a fundamental part of K-5 instruction leverages their natural curiosity about the world. In addition, science provides a rich context for building competencies in mathematics and English/Language Arts and for developing language [68, 69, 70].
Across the K-12 continuum, districts will need to provide high-quality instructional materials and ample space for conducting investigations, and supplies [14, 17]. This might also include technology. It will be essential to identify disparities in access or resources across districts and schools or among classrooms in the same school and work to ameliorate them.
At the secondary level, students need access to the full range of science courses (biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth and space science) and advanced coursework, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or dual enrollment
programs. This will also require strategies for ensuring there are teachers who have sufficient preparation to teach these courses. Students of color and students experiencing poverty need to take these courses in equal measure and have equitable access to local and regional partnerships that provide extended learning opportunities in classrooms, through afterschool and summer programs, apprenticeships, internships, and other programs.
As students move into all types of postsecondary settings, they will need continued access to student-centered, nonlecture-based instruction, and to facilities and resources that allow frequent opportunities to conduct scientific investigations and engage in small-group discussions [15, 16]. It will also be important for postsecondary students to have access to internships, apprenticeships, and other co-curricular activities that deepen their knowledge and allow them to explore a potential STEM career or pursue a scientific passion.
Second, having a high-quality, diverse workforce for teaching science across K-16 is essential.
Teachers are the engines of better, more equitable science education. At every stage of the K-16 continuum, students need science teachers who both understand science and know how to teach it in engaging, student-centered ways that reflect current evidence about how people learn [15, 16, 19]. Professional development for all K-16 teachers of science is therefore essential.
Starting in preservice, K-12 teachers need opportunities to learn about, try out, and refine instructional strategies for engaging students actively in science. These instructional strategies require a different set of skills and knowledge than traditional lecture and text-based approaches, so even veteran teachers may need additional learning opportunities. Effective professional learning experiences for teachers are ongoing, closely connected to the curriculum being taught, and allow time for reflection . As science is an essential literacy on par with English/Language Arts and mathematics, communities need to devote the same measure of professional development resources, including time, to science as the other disciplines. There is a particular need in postsecondary education for all who teach science (faculty, instructors, lecturers, grad students, and post docs) to have opportunities to learn about effective science pedagogy. (See Box 7 for information on professional development for postsecondary faculty.) All instructors of science across K-16 need to engage in ongoing learning designed to reduce reliance on lecture and increase application of student-centered instructional approaches.
Attracting and retaining more science teachers of color is a top priority for all levels of education . For example, many efforts are working to strengthen pathways for more diverse people to become STEM faculty . Communities need to create incentives and programs to invite Black, Latino/a and Indigenous teachers into the profession and then take intentional steps to ensure they feel welcome and valued. This will likely need to include attention to the working conditions in schools.
Third, students need clear, supportive pathways across grades 6-16.
A key strategy at all education levels is to adopt a policy of “inviting in” and supporting students rather than weeding them out [16, 17]. As students move through middle school and high school, they need guidance on what sequences of courses will lead them toward the careers that interest them. Particular attention needs to be paid to grades 11-14, when students are making critical decisions about whether to pursue STEM degrees and careers, stay on that path if they select it, and even whether to attend college after they have been accepted. One promising approach focused on the transition from high school to college is to deploy trained mentors and advisors to help students figure out how to navigate the transition [71, 72, 73]. Such mentors or advisors can provide personalized guidance on what courses to take; how to transfer between institutions; or how to search for research opportunities, internships and apprenticeships with local employers.
Community colleges play a vital role in the transition from secondary to postsecondary education for many students. They are affordable and community based, their student ranks include high percentages of Black and Latino/a undergraduates, and they are essential to efforts to advance people of color along the path to STEM careers. More than 400 community colleges across the country are moving to implement guided pathways to keep students on a personalized path toward a career, including STEM professions. (See Box 8 for further description of the guided pathways reform effort.)
Students often take courses in multiple institutions and then have difficulty transferring their credits which may force them to repeat courses and delay their progress. States and institutions need policies that facilitate transfer of credits to
help students stay on track and avoid running out of financial aid. (See Box 9 for an example of state policy—in Florida—that facilitates the smooth transition for students from one higher education institution to another.)
There are many approaches that can support students in their pathways to and through undergraduate STEM degrees. For example, many minority-serving institutions have an intentional culture of supporting students and this allows them to produce a disproportionate share of the nation’s STEM undergraduates, one-fifth of the total . Study of minority-serving institutions has identified effective mentorship and sponsorship, the cultivation of campus climates that respond to students’ needs, mission-driven leadership, and student exposure to undergraduate research as promising approaches.
Fourth, science assessments and accountability systems need to be aligned with the vision for high-quality science instruction.
Assessing science learning in ways that are aligned to our vision will require approaches that go beyond single tests of factual knowledge. Traditional, large-scale, multiple-choice tests cannot capture the ability of students to engage in the practices of science and reason about evidence . An advantage of the new approach to science instruction is that it provides many opportunities for assessing learning informally (formative assessment) as students engage in investigations, create representations, and discuss evidence [75, 76]. However, designing useful and meaningful formal assessments such as tests will require careful articulation of the desired learning goals and how students can demonstrate that they have achieved them [15, 75].
Including science more prominently in state accountability systems may help to elevate science as a priority, particularly at the elementary level. However, featuring science more prominently does not mean that states should administer a single test that checks for rote learning at the end of the school year. Rather, multiple and varied assessments designed to check for conceptual understanding and proficiency with science practices are needed. The assessments need to both inform classroom instruction and provide information about the progress of schools as well as districts and states. An assessment system for science also needs to include ways to document the distribution of high-quality science learning, K-16 across a given state to ensure that disparities in access and opportunity are identified and can be addressed .
Fifth, use evidence to document progress and inform ongoing improvement efforts.
As communities mobilize to address opportunity gaps in science education, they will need to use evidence to guide their efforts [1, 77, 78]. This includes data collected by school systems and institutions. Local and regional data will reveal where there are opportunity gaps (lack of resources, lack of access to advanced courses, lack of experienced science teachers) and provide a way to track progress in addressing them. Indicators to measure equity of access to high-quality science learning opportunities can include
- the amount of time elementary schools devote to science instruction each week;
- the number of science courses required for high school graduation;
- student access to rigorous science coursework and Career and Technical Education coursework grounded in science;
- qualifications and experience levels of K-12 science teachers;
- the provision of professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers and postsecondary faculty;
- the number of students who go on to postsecondary opportunities in science;
- the rates of transfer from 2- to 4-year institutions of higher education and of completion of 2- and 4-year degrees in STEM fields with particular attention to the science disciplines;
- access to internships and apprenticeships; and
- the success rate of pathway efforts and other mechanisms to promote advancement into STEM fields.
The data collected can be developed over time and start with the data that are most readily available to local K-12 school systems, postsecondary institutions, and states. Data should be disaggregated by disability status of students, gender, race, the percent of students experiencing poverty, the percentage of English language learners, and whether a school or district is in an urban, suburban, or rural area.
Working to Address the Priorities
To provide better, more equitable science education, leaders of local and regional K-12 systems and postsecondary institutions will need to work together with government and business, nonprofit and civic groups to develop and implement plans for improving science education that address these five priority areas. These plans can be integrated into existing strategic plans for STEM education. These collaborative efforts can drive focused, coordinated action to improve science education that are grounded in the needs of local communities and leverage local assets and stakeholder interest to help them thrive. These local and regional alliances can also elevate the importance of science in community conversations about education, the workforce, and the quality of life. Empowered local stakeholders who understand their communities’ unique civic and education infrastructures, assets, and needs can marshal community resources and assets to increase opportunity for learners to engage in high-quality, science-focused learning experiences along their pathways from K-12 and into postsecondary. The plans can leverage existing opportunities in after-school programs, workplaces, museums, libraries, and parks as well as in primary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions of all types.
These alliances can examine systems, practices and expectations across K-16 systems to determine if they are serving community interest and advancing priorities, and identify where supplemental or reallocations of funds would promote improvement.
As the alliances move forward with their work, it will be important to ensure that the people who are closest to the work of learning and teaching are an integral part of the work: teachers, principals, district leaders, faculty (tenure, nontenure, adjunct), lecturers, department chairs, and students. Evidence shows that principals in K-12 and department chairs are especially important leaders for supporting instructional change.
The committee recognizes that these efforts will require substantial financial investments and will take time. Leaders in education, business, and in the community will need to identify potential sources of new funding and consider ways to repurpose existing funding streams. Local philanthropy has a major role to play in supporting the work. Perhaps most importantly, elevating better, more equitable science education and fully addressing deeply entrenched disparities in access and opportunity will take time. While small gains may be seen more quickly, fully achieving the vision we have laid out will require long-term, sustainable investments and attention over a period of at least 5 to 10 years.